A PhD Abroad? An Erasmus Placement in Paris

Have you thought about spending a year abroad during your PhD for research? What are the good, the bad, and the ugly? Leopold Tobisch, currently on a one-year Erasmus programme in Paris, offers some practical advice.

Having decided to base my PhD on the music surrounding the events of Paris May 1968, one of my major concerns with this choice was the very simple fact that the majority of my resources would be abroad. There is a noticeable scarcity of information on this subject, and my research would require me to go to archives in Paris and interview both witnesses and artists present or linked to these events. My subject is still actually pertinent, an important element of French history and culture having taken place less than 50 years ago. This means that many of my key subjects or witnesses to the events are still alive, and sources are still largely accessible and easy to locate; for example several of my sources hold teaching posts in universities or keep blogs online (the Internet is an invaluable tool, and must never be underestimated!). However, almost all primary sources and contacts related to my research are located in Paris. In particular are the collections of publications and tracts distributed during the events of May ’68. In order to acquire a detailed knowledge of the historical underpinnings of my research, it was therefore necessary for me to go to Paris in order to explore such documents.

Fortunately, my university is able to offer its PhD students the opportunity of going abroad through the Erasmus programme. A year abroad is never an easy choice, and one that is rarely afforded to PhD students. However, when studying the music and musical history of a different country, this opportunity is one that should certainly not be overlooked. However, above all it is important to be able to justify such an investment of time. You will undoubtedly, at some point during your PhD, need to consult particular documents or collections, or simply talk to key figures within your field: a year abroad will bring you closer to such important sources and contacts.

The application process for an Erasmus placement can be tricky, since it requires communication between two universities: in my case, Cardiff University and the Université Sorbonne, Paris IV. Whilst applying for an Erasmus placement may be relatively straightforward, applying to a foreign university can be far more complex (the Sorbonne website alone, for example, is exceptionally difficult to navigate, even for a native French-speaker such as myself!) Accommodation arrangements, administration and applications are complicated, particularly in a big city like Paris (accommodation is scarce and the Sorbonne is a busy university). Although you will get some help and advice, you will mostly need to know where and when to look without necessarily being told: this is where talking to students who have already gone through the motions is helpful!

Accommodation is the biggest hurdle in preparing a move abroad (unless you opt for student hall accommodation, but this is an extremely scarce resource in Paris!) It is best, therefore, to exploit any and all contacts (I was fortunate enough to use family contacts to find a small studio). There are of course other ways of finding information: your host university will have an infinite list of student accommodation recommended by previous students, and landlords often advertise through the university, knowing full well that students are always looking for accommodation. It is best therefore to get in touch as soon as possible with your university for as much advice as possible.

Word of warning: the French administration system is notoriously (and infuriatingly) rigid, and difficult to circumvent without the proper documentation or status. This is immediately obvious when trying to open a bank account or any other form of official process (social security is very much a quest for the holy grail…I’m still waiting for mine!) A gas bill is as valuable as, if not more than, a passport, and will be required for all proof of address when setting up bank and other accounts. If you are lodging at a friend’s/relative’s house, an attestation d’hebergement will be required (this is a signed proof written by your host confirming your residency under his/her roof). Once you have found accommodation, meeting people is the next important step. Beyond the inevitable acquaintances you will make at your host university, it is good to sign up to as many things as possible, inevitably expanding your social circle (websites such as Meetup are great, allowing you to meet people who organize events based on shared hobbies).

My Erasmus year started in September 2012, and I have been living in Paris ever since. As a music student researching a historical subject, my research could not be limited to musical libraries. I subscribed to the French National Library (the BNF, Bibliothèque Nationale de France,) and the Bibliothèques de Paris something which any French researcher should do since it allows access to many national archival institutions, such as the main BNF archives, but also other sites like the Opéra Garnier and the Musée de l’histoire de la ville de Paris (almost all of these are part of the BNF and are accessible under one subscription). A BNF reader’s pass will cost around 30 euros for the year, a justified cost once you see the resources of the BNF (you are, of course able to trim off extras you think are unnecessary).

The main BNF site, located in the southeast of Paris, is a goldmine of information. Their growing collection includes almost every French publication, French scholarly journals dating back to the early 20th century, and even an impressive collection of international books and journals. Furthermore, the INAthèque (Institut National de l’Audiovisuel) has French radio and television broadcasts, digitalized and downloadable directly onto the library computers. There are also numerous databases providing information on the other archives located throughout Paris (and even beyond). Other institutions outside of the BNF include the CDMC (Centre de Documentation de la Musique Contemporaine) and the Médiathèque Musicale Mahler. It is also important to consider all the institutions in a city, even those that don’t explicitly offer public access. French institutions such as Radio France have their own archives and libraries, and it is possible to enquire about access to such collections if justified. Whilst a student status will make things a lot easier when trying to access university and conservatoire libraries (often a trove of scores and manuscripts), it is not impossible without.

A year abroad is undoubtedly ideal and exciting, but there are nonetheless several important constraints worth considering. The physical distance, and consequent lack of face-time with your supervisor, will obviously require constant email communication, and this is something to be considered by both the student and the supervisor. However, it is useful to co-ordinate (or at least consult) with someone in the city of your placement. PhD supervisions are not part of an Erasmus programme, and finding such a supervisor is very much up to you. I was able, during several previous visits to Paris, to meet one of the few authorities on my topic, who told me he would be happy to meet occasionally to discuss my research (although these meetings have ultimately been rather sporadic, this has nonetheless been very useful).

Ultimately, a PhD will require the same kind of work and research regardless of the country. However, when studying the music and musical history of a different country, these basic necessities are made somewhat more complicated. Whilst it is in no way a choice I would discourage, it is nonetheless one that entails a serious commitment: travel, translation and communication can sometimes be tricky issues to negotiate. For any further tips and information, this blog has proven itself invaluable on many occasions: http://www.blog.parisunraveled.com/

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